Tuesday, 2 September 2014

10 Top Tips for Great Virtual Author Visits • Jonathan Emmett

Are you Skyping comfortably? Then I'll begin.

A couple of years ago two school children in North Carolina emailed me to ask if I’d make a Skype visit to their elementary class. The class had read my picture book The Princess and the Pig and wanted to ask me some questions about it. I’d been thinking about offering Skype visits for some time, so I agreed. The visit went really well. I read the book to the children who'd prepared some great questions to ask me afterwards. The visit had been very quick and easy to arrange and although I’d only spent half an hour talking to the children it was obvious they'd become very enthusiastic about my books as a result.

Skype author visits are very popular in the US with many US children’s authors offering short virtual visits for free as well as longer visits for a fee. It seemed like a great way to connect with young readers both in the UK and beyond, so in June last year I started offering a limited number of free Skype school visits through my web site.

One of my virtual visits to a school in Wisconsin

I did my twentieth virtual visit last term and already have another five lined up for this autumn. Some of the schools I've visited have not had an author visit of any kind before and every school has been very appreciative. Teachers often follow up with classroom activities and schools have sent me letters, drawings and even an ebook the children created in response to my visit.

Although the technology is in place, virtual visits don’t seem to have caught on in the UK in the way they have in the US and only three of my virtual visits have been to UK schools. I think their popularity in the US is partly due to web sites such as the Skype an Author Network and Kate Messner's “Authors who Skype” web page which lists authors offering free Skype visits to US schools. So in March this year I set up virtualauthors.co.uk a directory of UK authors and illustrators offering free 15-20 minute Skype visits to UK schools.

The Virtual Authors site includes a page of advice for authors and illustrators on how to set up virtual visits, but I thought I’d offer some further advice on this blog. So here are 10 top tips for great virtual author visits.

Arranging the visit

My virtual visits page

1: Set up a web page for your virtual visits

Since I don't charge for my virtual visits, I like to keep the admin time to an absolute minimum and most of my visits are arranged with one or two short emails. The virtual visits page on my web site attempts to answer all the questions that schools might want to ask such as ‘how long does a visit last?’ or ‘is there a minimum group size?’. There’s also a booking table showing which dates are currently available. If this information wasn’t on the site I’d have to spend time responding to these questions by email. Similarly, you can ask schools to email you their visit requests, but a visit request web form with ‘required’ fields is a good way to ensure that schools provide you with all the information you need in one go.

2. Confirm the school’s Skype-name in advance

One of details you need to get from the school is their Skype-name. Teachers sometimes get this wrong, so it’s worth making sure you have the correct Skypename by sending a “contact request” via Skype in advance of the visit. I usually do this as soon as I receive the booking request to get it out the way. Ask the school (via email) to make sure that they accept the contact request and then check that they've done so a couple of days before the visit. This eliminates any problems with making contact on the day.

Five minutes before the visit

3. Make sure you'll be presentable and in frame

On a real school visit, if you have spinach in your teeth or your flies are unzipped, someone will probably point this out to you before you appear in front of a room full of children. The first time anyone will see you on a virtual visit is when you appear on the screen, so take a quick look in the mirror to check that your hair’s not sticking up at an outrageous angle or make sure you haven’t got toothpaste smeared across your chin – unless that’s the look you’re going for!

You might also want to check that your webcam is angled so that the children can see your whole face and not just the top or bottom of your head! You can check how you'll appear on your webcam by using the preview window in Skype's preferences. On a Mac, click on Skype on the menu bar, then Preferences > Audio/Visual. On a PC, click Call > Video > Video Settings.

Don't look like you've just crawled out of bed and check that your face is well-framed.

4: Be seen in the right light

You don’t want the children to see you as a sinister silhouette, so make sure your face is adequately lit when you’re on camera. If you're Skyping during daylight hours, daylight from a window will often provide the best lighting. If you’re using a Mac or a PC with a large screen to Skype, bear in mind that the screen itself is a light source. If the desktop on your computer is bright green and there’s not much light coming from your surroundings, your face may be bathed in sickly green light. This might be perfect if you’re reading a horror story, but if you're not then a neutral-coloured desktop (or a blank white document) behind your Skype window will illuminate your features without a colour cast.

Unless you're deliberately going for sinister, make sure you're seen in a good light.

5. Take the phone off the hook

You don’t want anything distracting you while you talk to the children, so five minutes before the visit take your landline off the hook and switch your mobile to silent. You might also consider quitting or turning off any alert sounds for your email and Twitter accounts.

Eliminate any distractions before you Skype

6. Know who you're talking to

Even though it’s a virtual visit, you want it to feel as personal as possible. So if like me you’re not very good at remembering names, write the name of the teacher, the class or year group, the school and the school’s location on a small piece of paper and stick it right next to the camera where you’ll be able to read it without looking away from the screen.

Some tips on how to set up your screen

During the visit

7. Look at the camera – not the screen

One of the things that can make Skype conversations feel less real than face to face conversations is a lack of eye contact. Skype users tend to look at the other person’s face on the screen rather than straight into the camera. Most authors will be using a webcam that’s built into their laptop or desktop PC. It’s tempting to make the Skype window full screen so that you get a bigger image of the children, but if you have a large screen it’s worth keeping the Skype window relatively small and right next to the camera (see screen photo above). That way you can see the the whole class while keeping your eyes close to the camera, which will look a lot more natural from the children’s point of view. When I’m reading a picture book, I try to look straight into the camera for most of the time so that the children will feel I am reading directly to them.

Try to look straight at the camera when you're speaking to the children

8. Don’t shout

Try to speak at a natural volume. If you find yourself talking loudly without meaning to, it may be because you have the speaker volume set too low on your computer; the children sound quiet so you subconsciously raise your own voice to compensate for the apparent poor connection. Similarly if you’re Skyping to a large hall full of children there’s no need to raise your voice so that they can hear you at the back (as you'd do if you were there in person). If your audience can’t hear you, the teacher can turn up the volume at the school's end.

9. Ask the teacher to prompt the children's questions

My Skype sessions usually include a question and answer session. On my actual school visits I can select which children ask questions by pointing at them myself. This isn’t practical on a virtual visit as the class can’t accurately judge who you’re pointing at from your screen image. An easy way around this problem is to ask a teacher to pick and prompt each questioner in turn.

10: Take advantage of being at home

A virtual visit is no substitute for a real school visit, but speaking to the children from home does have some advantages. For instance, if you’re able to move your camera around, you can give the children a guided tour of your office. I only take a small selection of my books on my actual school visits, but on a virtual visit I have them all at hand. So If a child asks me about the first book I ever wrote or my favourite picture book by another author, I can take a copy from my bookshelf and show it to them!

Show don't tell!

I hope this post has made some of you – authors and teachers – want to give virtual school visits a try. If you're already an experienced virtual visitor and have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them, so please post them in the comments below!

And If you’re a traditionally published author or illustrator that would like to be listed on virtualauthors.co.uk, please fill out the form on this page. Most of the authors that are currently listed on the site write for older children, so it would be great to have a few more picture book authors and illustrators.

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is HERE BE MONSTERS, a swashbuckling tale of dastardly pirates and mysterious monsters, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on facebook and twitter @scribblestreet.


Jane Clarke said...

Really helpful, Jonathan, thanks - I've done a couple of Skype visits (UK-Canada), and realise that before I do more I need to set the parameters clearly - as you have done- so that the unpaid Skype visit to a class doesn't replace a paid author visit (not necessarily by me) to a school. What I found a bit freaky, was looking at the back of children's heads - the teacher's webcam was at the back of the class, but I was projected onto a screen at the front and the children were looking towards that so I could only see their faces on the classroom screen.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Yes, if you are going to offer free visits, it is important to set parameters and keep to them. I’d read that US author Kate Messner who runs one of the US sites I referred to “typically dedicates one day a week to doing seven or eight free 15-minute Skypes” (http://bit.ly/1q61gjp). I decided I was only prepared to do an hour a week at most (on an unpaid basis). So I do a maximum of two 20 minute visits per week, only on Wedensdays and I limit schools to one visit per school per term. However experience has shown me that short free visits are an effective way for authors to reach schools that, for one reason or another (usually lack of finances), never book real author visits, as well as whet the appetite of other schools to have a real author visit.

One of the requirements I list on the virtual visits page of my site is that “The web-cam should be next to the screen if possible, so that I can see the children's faces looking towards me.” On the one occasion the school hadn’t done this, I asked them to move it before the session began as I don’t think it’s possible to have a proper rapport with the children without seeing their faces.

Natascha Biebow said...

Oh the places technology will take us! Now, no kids should be without access to author visits to enhance their love of reading and fire up their enthusiasm for story. Thanks, Jonathan, for a really practical and insightful post!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks Natascha.

Virtual visits have certainly taken me to places that my regular visits cannot reach. I had a lovely virtual visit with a small school on a Native American Reservation last year – there's not too many of those in the East Midlands!

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for all this excellent advice, Jonathan. I did a couple of Skype sessions with US schools a few years ago, and I'm hoping to get our Skype connection sorted out so that I can do it again. Your advice will be really helpful. There are indeed advantages to being in your own home. Last time the teacher thoroughly enjoyed having a tour of our kitchen and dining room and the children were able to meet our cat.

Jonathan Emmett said...

You're clearly a very adventurous Skyper, Ann! I haven't taken virtual visitors any further than my office yet, but I keep thinking I ought to.

We have a big clockwork dragon sculpture in our garden that was inspired by one of my picture books (you can see some photos here http://bit.ly/Z5wpsK). It would be great to read the story with this as a backdrop – weather permitting!

Moira Butterfield said...

Fantastic! Thanks so much Jonathan. I haven't done this as yet, but I get regular emails from children abroad and I like interacting with them. I'll be reading this carefully and then thinking about taking the plunge.

Pippa Goodhart said...

A really useful introduction and guide to an excellent way to make easy contact with lots of interested children. Thank you so much, Jonathan. I must get myself organised!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Go for it, Moira and Pippa!

Jane Clarke said...

Thanks, Jonathan, good tip, I'll be drawing up a list of requirements, too.

tammi sauer said...

Thank you so much for sharing this information!

This post was the best thing to land in my inbox this week. :)

Jonathan Emmett said...

You're very welcome, Tammi. Just checked out your site - it looks like you have some great books to Skype with.

Paeony Lewis said...

It sounds rather scary and complicated to somebody who doesn't already Skype, but I'm sure that once I have a PC or laptop with a webcam (yes, that would help!) and then experiment, it would all become less daunting. So now I have another bit of technology I need to learn. Can my wee brain take it? Hope so! And I know whom to ask if I get stuck! Thanks for a very useful blog, Jonathan.

Jonathan Emmett said...

I'm sure your "wee brain" can take it, Paeony! However I'd definitely recommend using Skype a few times (to call friends or family) to familiarise yourself with how the software works before using it for school visits.

Jon Burgess Design said...

What a great idea. I shall have to look into it all. Would my iPad be good quality enough do you think? It's really well set up for skype stuff with it's front and rear facing camera and all. . .
Are there such a thing as paid skype visits? He said hopefully ;-)

Jonathan Emmett said...

An iPad is great for Skyping (I sometimes use mine) and has the added advantage of being easy to carry around should you want to give classes a guided tour of your house!

If you check out the 'Skype an Author Network' US directory (http://skypeanauthor.wikifoundry.com), you'll find lots of authors offering paid for visits. Many authors offer short (15 mins) visits for free, but charge for longer, more in depth sessions.



Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks Jonathan - this is really useful :)

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Jonathan. That's really interesting. I've done a couple to the US and they've been really interesting. One thing we did was when the children had a question, they came up to the camera and said their name and then asked their question. Otherwise, it was really difficult to hear from the back of a classroom.

Would you do paid skype visits, where you try and do more what you'd do on a paid school visit? My two visits were probably an hour long each, and went really well but there was a lot of organisation involved. I love the idea of getting to some really remote places but I do worry slightly whether it encourages schools to get an awful lot out of very poorly paid authors... With a free author site, as you mentioned in the US, could a school have a skype chat with a different author every week? It sounds amazing for the school but it's that old thorny issue of changing their expectations of what authors' time is worth... I'm just raising this as an issue as it's one that comes up time and again on author sites... Very interesting!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Most of the time I can hear children’s questions from where they’re sitting in the classroom, but sometimes teachers have had to repeat them for me, so I may give your suggestion of having them come up to the camera a try. Children do come up to the camera when they have something to show me or read to me.

I don’t offer any paid virtual visits at the moment and I currently have no plans to. One reason I like doing free 20 minute visits is because they are quick and easy and I don’t feel under any obligation to give value for money.

The lack of payment, even for 20 minute Skype visits, does seem to be a sticking point for some UK authors. I ALWAYS charge for my actual school visits and have recently put up my fees. Shortly before I did my first Skype visit I had an awkward conversation with a publicist who asked me to do some free school visits to promote a particular book. I refused as a matter of principal, but felt a bit of an ogre for doing so as the publicist had put a lot of effort into promoting the book (arranging radio interviews and festival events). When the first US school got in touch to request a Skype visit I did a little research into fees and discovered that many US authors offered short Skype visits for free. Given that they took so little time, I decided that this was one type of school visit that I was prepared to offer for free.

I think it’s a question of striking a sensible balance. Most authors are prepared to give a little of their time for free occasionally (neither you or I are payed to write posts for this blog) if it’s something they enjoy doing and I’ve had some very rewarding responses from schools. Since writing this post I’ve written another post for my own blog (bit.ly/1nZh5JH) about a US school that set up a fan site after one of my virtual visits.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks for your really helpful reply, Jonathan. I agree it's about striking a sensible balance. I don't do school visits free either -except ones relating to my children's school and I've done loads of free work relating to reading and writing there. I've also got a grant to engage hard to engage children in reading for pleasure and my matched funding was got by basically being unpaid for about 90% of the work I did for it! I do do some other stuff unpaid (relating to libraries) but as someone who earns considerably less than the minimum wage -as is the case with many other authors, I've got to learn to be really sensible with my time. I think there's a problem of people not realising how little money most authors earn.

I do think it's a really interesting subject and I love that skype has made this possible. Thanks for all the tips. I certainly had to play around with lighting (though I didn't ever look quite as green as you in that picture -but possibly as scary!). Thanks, Clare.